Syria joined other Arab nations Saturday in endorsing the head of Lebanon's army as that country's next president, putting pressure on the Lebanese opposition to drop demands that have blocked a compromise over the post.
During a meeting in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers agreed unanimously to back Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman for president and called on Lebanon's rival parties to resolve their political differences.
Syria's decision to back the statement suggested that the Lebanese opposition - led by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah - maybe ready to drop its demand that it receive Cabinet veto power before allowing Suleiman to be elected.
"Stemming from Arab responsibilities toward Lebanon and in continuation of Arab efforts to help Lebanon overcome its crisis, the ministers ... call on the concerned parties in Lebanon to reach a consensus," the foreign ministers said in a statement made available to The Associated Press.
The statement called on Lebanon to elect a president by Jan. 27. It urged Lebanon to first elect Suleiman, then resolve the issues surrounding a national unity government. The ministers also said the new president should have the power to cast his vote to break ties in the Cabinet.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters late Saturday that the foreign ministers would agree on a plan for Lebanon's parties to "hold immediate elections and form the national unity government."
Lebanon has been without a president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended Nov. 23. The crisis over the presidency has capped a yearlong power struggle between anti-Syrian politicians, who hold a slim majority in parliament and support the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and the opposition led by the militant group Hezbollah.
Lawmakers on both sides have agreed to back Suleiman as a compromise candidate, but the parliament must first amend the constitution to allow a sitting military chief to become president.
This process has been complicated by the opposition's demand for a new unity government that would give it veto power over major decisions. Opposition boycotts have thwarted attempts to choose a president by preventing a two-thirds quorum.
The ruling coalition accuses the opposition of obstructing the presidential vote under orders from Syria and Iran. In turn, the opposition claims pro-government groups in the parliament majority follow U.S. policies.
Syria effectively controlled Lebanon for almost three decades but was forced to withdraw its thousands of troops in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.